Ayr (surveyed in 1855)


Ayr is situated on Scotland's west coast at the influx of the River Ayr into the Firth of Clyde, about 30 miles south-west of Glasgow. The former county town of Ayrshire, it was granted the royal charter in 1205 by King William the Lion. Its name is taken from the River Ayr, which divides the town into two. Interestingly, it is only the area on the river's left bank which constitutes the royal burgh. The 'Twa Brigs', made famous by local poet Robert Burns, linked the two at the time of this survey, with a railway viaduct being erected in 1898. At the time of this survey the population of the town as a whole – the parliamentary constituency – was 15,749 and of these, 9,115 lived in the royal burgh.

Town Planning

As today, Ayr in the 1850s was a busy and pleasant town, containing many important buildings of interest. Originally it grew around a castle built in 1197 by William the Lion. Robert the Bruce destroyed the castle in 1298. Over the centuries Ayr grew into an important centre of trade and, with its long sandy beach and various distractions, developed a thriving tourist industry from the mid-1850s onwards.


Ayr's county buildings (sheet 8), built around 1820, were based on the Temple of Isis in Rome and are still used as council offices. They comprise the court and record rooms and the county hall. Another focal point in the town, the imposing 113 feet high gothic statement of Wallace Tower, where William Wallace was apparently imprisoned, stands at the corner of High Street and Mill Vennel.

At the time of this survey Ayr was prospering and this was reflected in its architecture. Both the Statistical Account for 1847, and Wilson's Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland (1857), mention the 'handsome new buildings' in Wellington Square and Barns' Street (sheet 8).

Trade and Industry

Ayr was an important seaport, and in 1792 an act was passed for deepening and maintaining the harbour (sheets 4 and 6), and enlarging and improving the quays. In 1817, another act was passed with the same goal.

The principal trade at the time of survey was the exportation of coal to Ireland, and between 60,000 and 70,000 tons were exported each year. Other exports included pig iron from nearby Muirkirk and Glenbuck, coal-tar, brown paint, lamp black, coal-oil, and Water-of-Ayr stone. Coming into the harbour were hides and tallow from South America, beef, butter, barley, yarn, and linen from Ireland, spars and deals from America and hemp and iron from the Baltic. Trading also went on between Ayr and Glasgow, Greenock, Liverpool and the Isle of Man, amongst others. In 1855, 38 vessels belonged to the harbour.

In 1854, the domestic trade was 36,760 tons coming into the town, with 84,330 tons being exported. Foreign trade comprised a tonnage of 2,275 inward and 1,645 outward. Fishing was also once an important industry in Ayr, and large numbers of white fish were caught in the sandbanks of the Firth of Clyde. In the town itself, shipbuilding was an important industry at one time, although by the mid-nineteenth century trade was slowing. There were several sawmills, a woollen mill and many carpet weavers. Tanners and shoemakers were also in abundance. As the capital of the county, Ayr was also a thriving market town.

Religious Life

Ayr had many churches in the mid-eighteenth century, catering for all denominations. The old parish church of Ayr was built in 1654, and is surrounded by the town's original burial ground. The new church was erected in 1810, and cost of £5,703, which would be around £210,000 today. Combined, the two churches could seat 1,982 people. There were a number of Free churches and United Presbyterian churches. Other denominations represented were Wesleyan Methodists, Baptists, Morrisonians, Moravanians, Episcopalians and the Original Seceders. The Roman Catholic chapel in John Street was built in 1836 to cope with the massive influx of Catholic Irish immigrants, and was called 'the handsomest church in Ayr'.


Ayr Academy was regarded by Wilson (1857) as 'one of the best provincial seminaries in Scotland'. Founded in 1798, it superceded the parish schools of the area. It stands near the Fort (sheet 6). Wilson says, 'All the branches of education necessary for a commercial life are here taught by able masters'. Smith's Institution was a school for the poor, and there was also a school of industry, a ladies charity school, an infant and juvenile school, and a 'ragged' school for children of the poor. The Mechanics' Institution was also an important place of learning.

Culture and Society

By the mid-1800s, Ayr had a 'large and excellent' (Wilson 1857) public library, a public reading room, public baths, bowling and curling clubs and many other societies catering for all sectors of the population. It also had a theatre. Another popular diversion was horse racing, the racetrack being situated just outside the town. Ayr Racecourse, established in 1777, is still in operation today.